The Reagan administration, in a new round of Mideast policy making, is considering new steps in the lagging Palestinian autonomy negotiations between Israel and Egypt and an early trip to the two countries by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., official sources said yesterday.
Ambassador to Egypt Alfred L. Atherton and Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis were flying home this weekend to participate in the discussions, which are to begin early this week. State Department spokesman Joseph Reap Jr. said the discussions will center on the autonomy negotiations and the peace process in the Middle East.
U.S. officials have expressed little expectation of a quick resolution of the issues surrounding autonomy for the Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Among the steps being considered to spur the process is the appointment of a high-level U.S. negotiator.
This week's discussions will take place at a time of tension and uncertainty in U.S. relations with Israel. Among other things, the administration is facing a decision within the next several days about its stand at the United Nations regarding Israel's recent annexation of the Golan Heights.
The United States, along with all 14 other members of the U.N. Security Council, voted Dec. 17 to consider Israel's action "null and void." The resolution called on Israel to rescind the annexation and committed the Security Council to a further meeting by Jan. 5 to consider "appropriate measures" if Israel refuses.
Arab representatives have said they will seek definitive U.N. action, possibly including economic sanctions, if Israel refuses to rescind the annexation. The Reagan administration has refused to say what it will do if faced with such Arab appeals, although U.S. support for sanctions against Israel is considered unlikely.
Another topic for Mideast policy makers is the intensified maneuvering within the Arab world in the wake of Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights. Saudi Arabia and Syria, which have been at odds in recent months, have been negotiating a rapprochement, while the Saudis have postponed a planned visit to Washington by Crown Prince Fahd, the administrative leader of the kingdom.
The Israeli action and Arab reaction have complicated the position of Egypt, Israel's sole negotiating partner in the region. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent a personal letter to President Reagan after the Golan annexation, and Mubarak has scheduled an early February trip to Washington to discuss the peace process and other issues. Ambassador Atherton called on Mubarak in Cairo yesterday to solicit his ideas for the upcoming discussions.
Like his sponsor and mentor, the assassinated president Anwar Sadat, Mubarak had hoped for successful completion or at least major progress in the Palestinian autonomy negotiations by this spring. Under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israel is scheduled to return the rest of the occupied Sinai to Egypt in late April, and achievements for the Palestinians by that time would tend to rebut charges that Egypt had settled for a separate peace with the Jewish state.
Ambassadors Atherton and Lewis, in the absence of a special negotiator, are the ranking U.S. representatives to the negotiations. The next ministerial-level meeting in the autonomy talks between Egypt and Israel is scheduled for Jan. 11-12 in Cairo.
State Department sources said Haig may fly to Israel and Egypt for a round of discussions before returning to Washington from a foreign ministers' meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to discuss Poland. That meeting is expected to be held about the middle of this month.
Haig had been scheduled to fly to Israel Dec. 13 and Egypt Dec. 18 for brief stops on an extensive tour following a NATO meeting in Brussels, but his trip was cut short by the martial law crackdown in Poland that began in the early morning of Dec. 13.
Israel moved suddenly and unexpectedly Dec. 14 to annex the Golan Heights, plunging U.S.-Israeli relations into a new crisis that saw Washington suspend the recently signed strategic cooperation agreement with Israel. It is unclear whether the Jewish state would have taken the annexation step if the Haig trip had proceeded.
After an outburst of indignation from Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in which he suggested that Washington is treating Israel as "a vassal state" and "a banana republic," officials in both countries sought to reduce the rhetoric before additional damage was done to the relationship.
Washington officials expressed encouragement about the discussions last week with Begin and others by Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Percy, saying that "time is running out" in the quest for Middle East peace, said that the autonomy negotiations "must be pursued urgently."